This is the long over-due Part 3 on my series about buying land (see Part 1, and Part 2). In this section, I’ll talk about how to physically locate parcels of land on the surface of the Earth (specifically, in the US). The fact that this topic warrants an entire blog post (and more!) might come as a surprise to some. After all, if you buy a house or a condo, physically locating it is usually the easiest part; just type the address into Google Maps, and follow the directions. Easy! The problem is, remote vacant land often won’t have street addresses that mapping services would recognize.
Wait. No street addresses? Then how is land described or identified? Glad you asked. Here are a few of the ways land can be described:
- Driving directions – Real estate listings for land often will include directions you can follow to get to the land… or at least, close to it. As far as the real estate agent knows. Which might not be accurate. In any case, it’s usually of the “Go east on Highway 123, then turn left on county road 4 approximately 2 miles past the cafe in Tinytowne, drive roughly 10 miles until you see a dirt road (see attached picture)…” variety. Yeah. Fun. The problem is, when you’re talking about acres of land, getting there is only the beginning. You then want to know where the property boundaries are and such. So, directions like these, while useful, only give you a part of the picture. Instead, you should ask for…
- Topo maps – Some of the more technically savvy realtors will use GIS software to plot the approximate property boundaries onto a topographical map. If you’re not familiar with topo maps, they’re detailed maps that show not only roads and such, but also represent the terrain, vegetation, bodies of water, and other useful information. I believe they are made by the USGS, and copies are available online (I’ve used Digital-Topo-Maps.com), or at BLM offices. If your realtor is savvy enough to use GIS, they should also be able to give you approximate GPS coordinates of the property corners. Sounds great, right? Well, note how I’ve used the word approximate a couple of times… Yeah. So, when I first got a topo map representing the property I ended up buying, they got it horribly wrong. If I’d gone by that, I’d think I owned tens of acres of someone else’s land, and thought I’d have road frontage when I didn’t. In most cases, they’ll be accurate to within, oh, tens of feet, but still, that could be quite significant, and to make matters worse, consumer-grade GPS units are often only accurate to within tens of feet, which means, combined, you could be off by 50-100ft!
- Parcel maps – These are usually maps filed at the county recorder’s office, and contain less information than topo maps about the nature of the land, but more accurate information about the parcel’s borders. These are usually drawn up by Land Surveyors (LS) or Registered Civil Engineers (RCE), and might contain information such as the precise length of a border, the location of surveyor’s pins and other markers, and easements. Parcel maps come pretty close to being the source of truth, but, they are not the source of truth. They can be wrong, or outdated and superseded by newer parcel maps that for some reason your realtor isn’t aware of, but contains relevant (and potentially conflicting/overriding) information. Another big problem with parcel maps is that they don’t necessarily tell you where your property is on the surface of the planet. Take a look at the example map above. Given such a map, how would you find the property corners? There aren’t any GPS coordinates on the map, and it’s entirely likely that there aren’t any physical markers (fences, surveyor’s pins, etc) on the ground. I’ll describe how this works later in this post…
- Legal description – The source of truth is actually what’s called the legal description. It is a textual description of a parcel of land written down on the deed. You might think you’re buying land, with trees, dirt, rocks… but no, actually, when you buy land, you’re buying a piece of paper with text on it. So, what does this text look like? I’m sure there are a wide variety of descriptions, but personally, I’m aware of four different patterns:
- “Parcel 3 in the map on Page 42, Book 78 filed in the County of Snarfle on January 25th, 1962.” (The precise language might sound more official or legalese, but you get the idea)
- “From the North West corner of Section 27 of Township 26 North, Range 6 West, Mount Diablo Meridian, go due south 2603.4ft to the starting point. Thence due East 2612ft, then due South 2609.2ft, due West 2611ft then due North 2605ft back to the starting point.” This description is based on the PLSS, which I’ll describe below. (Again, in reality, it’ll sound slightly more official and legal than that, but you get the idea.)
- “East half of South West Quarter of Section 27, T26N R6W, MDM” This is also based on PLSS.
- “beginning with a corner at the intersection of two stone walls near an apple tree on the north side of Muddy Creek road one mile above the junction of Muddy and Indian Creeks, north for 150 rods to the end of the stone wall bordering the road, then northwest along a line to a large standing rock on the corner of John Smith’s place, thence west 150 rods to the corner of a barn near a large oak tree, thence south to Muddy Creek road, thence down the side of the creek road to the starting point.“(src) This system uses an old British system called Metes and Bounds.
If you buy land, sooner or later, it’s likely you’ll end up with all of the above. Or, at least, I did. Then, you drive out there, put on your hiking boots, and you walk. And don’t forget to bring a snack and some water too, ’cause you might be out there for a while… But before you do that, it’ll help to understand how the aforementioned Public Land Survey System works, since most land in a large portion of the US (excepting large swaths on the East Coast, mostly in the original 13 Colonies) will have descriptions based on that system.
The Public Land Survey System
If you’re really interested, go read this page and skip my explanation. For those of you only mildly interested, I’ll try to summarize the basic idea:
So, the Brits, being ass-backwards as they are, used what’s known as Metes and Bounds. Their system basically used physical landmarks, directions and distances to describe land. So you’d start at a rock, then head towards that tree, then along this stream… so on and so forth. The problem is, these physical landmarks can move or disappear over time, creating ambiguity. But in the US, we had Thomas Jefferson. In case you didn’t know, Thomas Jefferson was pretty bad ass. He was like the Chuck Norris of his time. But smarter. Anyway, I digress… where was I? Right. Thomas Jefferson came up with a more rational system based on a grid. In the PLSS, most of the US is divided into a neat grid, of 6 mile by 6 mile boxes called Townships. Each Township is further divided into a 6 by 6 grid of Sections that are one mile square. Except, I lied. I said a grid, but in reality, there are many grids. Let’s look at the example I mentioned in one of the legal descriptions above: Township 26 North, Range 6 West, Mount Diablo Meridian or abbreviated T26N, R6W, MDM. What that basically says is, starting at the origin of the Mount Diablo Meridian grid (presumably somewhere near Mount Diablo in central California), you go North 26 townships, then West 6 townships, and that’s the one we’re talking about (columns of townships are called Ranges, hence Range 6 West). Within townships, sections are numbered left to right, top to bottom, so Section 27 would be 5 rows down, and 3 columns over.
So… ok, if you’re confused, go read the article I linked to in the first place. The illustrations there might do a better job than my rambling. Though it won’t tell you how kickass Thomas Jefferson was. Kickass, I say.
Incidentally, a Section, the one mile by one mile box at the lowest levels of the PLSS grid, is approximately 640 acres. A quarter of a Section is 160 acres. A quarter of a quarter of a Section is 40 acres. Ever heard the phrase “40 acres and a mule”? Yep. Now you know why it’s 40 acres and not 30 or 50 or a 100.
Finding Section Boundaries
If you’re buying large acreage (i.e. a multiple of 20), there’s a good chance you’ll be buying a neat fraction (half, quarter, etc) of a Section. In fact, your property may even be in the corner of a section, and have a legal description that originates at that section corner. If so, you might want to know where the section corners are. There are websites that’ll take Township, Range and Section codes and crank out GPS coordinates. But, really, the source of truth is a marker on the ground. If you’re unlucky, like me, your Township was last (and first) surveyed by the General Land Office in 1880. They conveniently erected a pile of volcanic rock to mark the section corner… in a field strewn with volcanic rocks. Do you know what a 130 year old pile of volcanic rocks in a field full of volcanic rocks looks like? I don’t. But, that’s why we have RCEs and LSs.
Finding Property Boundaries
So, I hope you enjoyed reading all that information above, because in reality, most of it is interesting but useless background knowledge. In reality, here’s how you locate a parcel of land:
- Get all relevant maps and legal descriptions from your realtor, or better, the county recorder’s office
- Look at all the maps of the parcel that have been filed at the county, which were drawn up by an LS or RCE. Look for indications of surveyor’s markers or pins (usually tiny circles).
- Go to the property, and look for those markers or pins. Usually they are numbered plastic or brass discs or tags attached to something permanent. They may be attached to trees, but I believe they are often on steel pipes pounded into the ground. However, they might only stick out of the ground about 6 inches, and unless you’re practically on top of it, you might not see it. But having approximate GPS coordinates will help you constrain your search area. At least, that’s how I found my markers (one of which is pictured to the right).
- If there is any ambiguity, consult a LS or RCE (though this may cost money)
And, really, that’s it. One thing to keep in mind is that fences are not a source of truth. There are fences between my property and neighboring public lands, but once I found all the surveyor’s pins marking my property corners, I realized that the fences are not actually on the boundaries. Now, if legal disputes were to ever arise, fences may mean something in court, especially if they’ve been there a while. But, I’m not a lawyer, and you should consult a real real estate lawyer about such issues.